With world Jewry focused on the interdenominational crisis in Israel this week, few are paying much attention to tensions between the Reform and Orthodox in England. Rabbi Mark Winer is one of those few. The former spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains is about to assume the pulpit at Britain’s largest Reform congregation. As the spiritual leader of some 2,400 Reform families, he will become arguably the most prominent non-Orthodox authority in Europe.
He also will confront wounds left festering since the death of his predecessor, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, in August 1996. The Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, did not attend Rabbi Gryn’s funeral. And in a letter to a prominent Orthodox leader one year ago, Rabbi Sacks declared himself an “enemy” of non-Orthodox movements, which he denounced as a “false grouping” who “destroy the faith.”
But Rabbi Winer, who headed Congregation Kol Ami for a decade before resigning last year, is undaunted by the controversy and predicts a good relationship with the chief rabbi.
“Rabbi Sacks has apologized for his remarks,” said the 55-year-old Rabbi Winer, who expects to move to London this summer. “I look forward to being involved with the Orthodox in Britain in the same way I worked together for years in the Synagogue Council of America ... I look forward to finding a way to build klal Yisrael.”Rabbi Winer said he has yet to place a call to the chief rabbi. “I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” he said. “I won’t try to reach him right away. He’ll certainly be one of my first calls once I settle into office.”
Rabbi Winer has a strong track record in interdenominational relations. He was a vice president of the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America, which included Orthodox rabbis, and is currently the president of the National Council of Synagogues, an umbrella group for the Reform and Conservative movements.
He is known, too, for his negotiating skills, having played a role in discussions that led to the release of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon in 1991 and in talks on removing the controversial Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, considers Rabbi Winer uniquely suited for attempts to bridge the gap in England.
“If anybody can do it, he clearly can,” said Rabbi Yoffie. “I don’t doubt his ability and willingness to work with all movements, but it’s not at all clear how much room there is for cooperative efforts with the chief rabbinate there.
“Rabbi Sacks has a reputation for moderation but unfortunately he, like many others in the Orthodox world, has been subject to a lot of pressure from the right wing.”
Rabbi Sacks did not return repeated calls for comment.
Last March, explaining his decision to attend a memorial service for Rabbi Gryn, Rabbi Sacks told Dayan Chanoch Padwa, the 90-year-old head of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, that he would be eulogizing the Reform leader “not as a Reform rabbi but as a survivor of the Holocaust,” and only to head off attempts to establish a Reform chief rabbinate. He added that the Reform, Liberal and Masorti [Conservative] movements knew “they have no enemy or opponent equal to the chief rabbi.”
The letter was leaked to the London Jewish Chronicle.
Rabbi Sacks has since called for the establishment of a “Coalition for Peace in the Community” to promote tolerance and compassion.
Rabbi Winer, a Utah native ordained at New York’s Hebrew Union College, was up against two other Americans and candidates from as far away as Israel and South Africa for the prestigious and lucrative West London position, with a reported six-figure salary. Also in the running was the synagogue’s longtime associate rabbi, Jacqueline Tabick.
Some congregants were angered that she was not appointed, and at least one board member resigned over the decision, the Jewish Chronicle reported. The paper also quoted synagogue chairman Jeoff Samson as saying at an open meeting that he had spoken with Rabbi Gryn shortly before his death and that “he did not name Jackie” as a successor.
Rabbi Winer said the search committee was intent on hiring an American. “Most of us in America don’t realize how we’re looked upon by the rest of world,” he said.
While acknowledging that Rabbi Tabick, who could not be reached for comment, was resentful of his appointment, Rabbi Winer said “she is working through her understandable feelings and promised me she will be fully professional and ... work with me for the good of the congregation.”
A similar situation led to Rabbi Winer’s departure from his White Plains pulpit. The congregation wanted to place its associate rabbi, Shira Milgrom, on an equal footing with Rabbi Winer. Soon after he became rabbi emeritus and withdrew from the pulpit.
Downplaying the matter, Rabbi Winer said he left the congregation to devote more time to his interdenominational work.
“I saw an opportunity to help start the National Council of Synagogues, so that’s what I did,” he said.
A longtime Anglophile, Rabbi Winer said he has “always loved London” and feels “a great symmetry with the positions of the membership of the synagogue and the Reform movement in Britain.”
“They are in general much more traditional than the Reform movement of the United States, particularly on issues of intermarriage and liturgy. Both of these positions are much closer to my own,” he said.
Unlike America, the majority of affiliated Jews in England identify with Orthodoxy — regardless of their observance, a circumstance similar to Israel, where there are only a few Reform and Conservative congregations.
Although not thrilled with the recommendations of the Neeman Commission in Israel, framing a compromise on the issue of conversion, Rabbi Winer said he would accept it for the sake of unity.
“I’m in favor of every effort which is made to bring our people together,” he said a few days before the agreement was rejected by Israel’s chief rabbis. “I would not go along with it in the U.S. or in Great Britain. I think we can do better than that. But the most important goal that we have now is that we’re able to keep the State of Israel secure.”
Confident that the wounds sustained in the aftermath of Rabbi Gryn’s death can be healed, Rabbi Winer said it is in the best interests of Orthodoxy to find common ground.
“The enmity between the Orthodox and everybody else is worse for the Orthodox in the long run,” he said. “It discredits Orthodoxy.
“Most Jews are lovers of the freedom of ideas. Most Jews around the world celebrate the diversity of ideas that has been a hallmark of our people.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.